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Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson speaks for Notre Dame Forum

| Thursday, September 20, 2018

Notre Dame Forum’s first lecture of the year, titled “The Catholic Artistic Heritage: Bringing Forth Treasures New and Old,” featured Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. In a discussion moderated by English professor Susannah Monta, Robinson spoke on themes such as religion and beauty in her novels and how these themes immerse themselves in contemporary society and culture. 

“Beauty is the signature of the presence of God,” Robinson said.

Mary Clare Donnelly | The Observer

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson autographs a book at her lecture Wednesday evening in the Dahnke Ballroom. 

In response to a question from Monta, Robinson said one of her principle religious beliefs is that we are among souls.

Robinson said her beliefs on higher education follow from this principle.

“For one thing, I think there would be a big infusion of mutual respect, inevitably,” she said. “ … We have to realize that to say that someone is a soul, to say that something is mysterious, by itself has to make us alert to the fact that people express themselves unconsciously in many cases — but beautifully.”

Robinson said she believes in being open about what she believes.

“How many people who could write about their religious faith, who would want to, who would create a beautiful religious art out of the fact of their faith, are stymied and silenced because they are afraid that someone might say ‘I don’t really believe any of that,’” she said. “There is no reason in my experience to keep people from being absolutely candid about what they believe.”

A four-student panel, with both undergraduates and graduates, had the opportunity to ask Robinson questions. One doctoral student, Jillian Snyder, asked Robinson about Calvinism, a theology that heavily influences Robinson’s writing, and its impact on American discourse today.

“I think he’s still very palpably present in a lot of American poetry,” Robinson said. “I think that in a way he got himself embedded in the culture … He says that anyone who confronts you is God. It is the image of God, and this means that God himself is attentive to how you react to the fact that this image is presented to you. God has an intention with every human encounter you have.”

As the final question, a member of the audience, Fr. Joe Simmons, referenced an image in one of Robinson’s essays of “washing off baptism” and asked Robinson from a critical point in the Church how can we give imagination to the world and faith. In response, Robinson said religion is a central possession in a civilization.

“Anyone has the possibility of making [religion] the best possible expression of this yearning that human beings have,” Robinson said. “Religion is profoundly historical. It’s not historical in a way that traps you in it, you know what I mean? If you are deeply committed to what you and other people find most beautiful in it and are loyal to that, then you’re doing something that the civilization yearns to have you do.”

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